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A showman moves to new stage

My reaction when I heard the news Tuesday night was simply, “Good for Joe.”

You can’t cover a coach for 15 years and not become fond of the guy. College basketball is a tough road in Buffalo. I’ve been known to pull for the coaches to rise above their modest resources and deliver the big story in a second-rate hoop culture.

Joe Mihalich left more than his share of memories in 15 years at Niagara. I called him an uninspired hire at the time. Shows what I know.

He won 265 games, the most of any coach in MAAC history. In 2005, after several crushing failures, he took Niagara to its first NCAA Tournament since 1970. Two years later, he did it again. He won three regular-season MAAC titles, three Coach of the Year awards. He took the Purple Eagles to three NIT’s.

He was the perfect choice, a man who waited 17 years as a top assistant at La Salle, then made the most of it when he got his opportunity to be a head man. Mihalich took players who were flawed and overlooked, like Joe, and gave them the freedom to thrive and win.

I had begun to think Mihalich might be on Monteagle Ridge forever, that he would be one of those legends who had a court named for him. He would join Taps Gallagher and Calvin Murphy as the holy trinity of Niagara basketball.

That seems naive, now that Mihalich has jumped to Hofstra for a new challenge and an estimated $100,000 annual salary bump. These are turbulent times in college sports, with schools bolting conferences for big TV money and coaches looking to either justify their salaries or chase bigger ones.

Mihalich is 56. He has spent 32 years in two jobs. That’s a stable lifestyle for a coach. But it’s not as if he hasn’t looked around. He was interested in the St. Bonaventure job after the scandal. He wanted the UB job when Reggie Witherspoon was let go.

College basketball is increasingly a young man’s game. Mihalich was running out of time. You couldn’t blame him for looking bigger. His salary at Niagara was around $190,000, among the lowest in the MAAC. It has become tough keeping assistant coaches.

This makes three of the four men’s Big 4 jobs changing in a year. But Mihalich is only the third coach to leave on his own since I came to Buffalo in 1989. John Beilein left Canisius in 1997 and Jim Baron walked away from St. Bonaventure four years later, both for much bigger money.

You want to stay ahead of the posse. Mihalich watched as Canisius hired Baron last summer, only after a significant boost in the program’s resources. Then he saw Witherspoon get whacked by a new athletic director, who is pumping more money into the UB program.

So Mihalich had to be a little miffed by his own situation. Like Witherspoon, he was now working under a new athletic director, Tom Crowley, who came from Butler with a reputation as a fundraiser.

After all the fuss over Baron, he was still better than Canisius this past season. Niagara, the MAAC’s youngest team, arrived earlier than expected and won the regular season. Mihalich got Coach of the Year. He was never going to be more marketable.

So he’s gone. Maybe he didn’t get more offers because he wasn’t slick. He’s a rumpled, fretful soul who never trusted his own success. That kept him pushing to be better. I remember talking to him in 2006 at St. Joe’s, where his sons played high school ball. He was beating himself up for not recruiting a point guard after Alvin Cruz.

Mihalich went out and found Tyrone Lewis, a gifted athlete who wasn’t a pure point guard. Joe didn’t care. He knew the kid could play and help him win. Lewis rewarded him by winning MVP of the MAAC tourney as a freshman.

His teams at Niagara reflected his personality. They were frantic and flawed and undaunted. Mihalich liked to play small lineups. He trusted his kids to play big. At times, it caught up with him. The Eagles lost some MAAC finals because they lacked the big men to contend inside. Defense wasn’t always a priority. Joe would let average shooters believe they were great. Sometimes, that inflated belief shot them out of big games.

But they were a good show. In an era of overcoaching, Mihalich let his kids play. And they won. He had four 20-win seasons and only three losing campaigns in his 15 years. He made the MAAC semifinals on a routine basis. Canisius hasn’t done it in 11 years.

Mihalich wasn’t Hofstra’s first choice. But they’re lucky to get a coach of Mihalich’s caliber. He’s a proven recruiter who has connections in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and will be a short hop from New York City.

Hofstra went 7-25 last year. The Pride had four players arrested last November in connection with a string of dormitory burglaries. I assume Hofstra knew that Mihalich had disciplined his players harshly after a campus fight before the 2006-07 season, then led them to the NCAA tourney.

Mihalich was crushed to know his players had brought dishonor to Niagara. He suspended players and got off to a bad start. Then they won the league. The NCAA rewarded him with a spot in the play-in game. He was incensed. There was an aggrieved quality to Joe at times. I rarely covered a game where he didn’t complain about the officiating. That hardly made him unique.

We got closer toward the end, when our mothers died just three weeks apart last autumn. On an emotional night when he won his third Coach of the Year award, Mihalich told me you think you’re ready for a parent to go, but you’re never ready.

This, he’s ready for. Mihalich has been prepared for the next level all along. But he never thought he was too big for a job. Maybe that’s why he lasted so long at two of them.

Niagara should consider itself lucky for keeping him for 15 years. After awhile, you take the winning for granted. But, a D-I coach averaging 18 wins a season for 15 years around here? Good luck beating that.